Sunday 18 June 2023

The character of Jesus in the Fourth Gospel

The author of the Fourth Gospel (who I believe to be the risen Lazarus) is the only person in the Bible who claims to be a witness of the last three years of Jesus's life and teachings, and a disciple. 

He is the only one who knew Jesus personally, loved and was loved-by him; and so is (presumably) the single person in the best position to provide a true account of Jesus's character during the period of his ministry, death and resurrection. 

In the first Chapters of the Fourth Gospel, there is initially more about John (the Baptist) than Jesus, and more of his words. 

Jesus only gradually gets-into the narrative from a few phrases of reported conversation with the disciples and his mother, and the account of the 'scourging' of the Temple; until the interaction with Nicodemus. 

Even from these snatches of conversation, it seems that Jesus is enigmatic, even mercurial. He does not answer direct questions; but instead responds with a further question, or a 'riddle' or a 'story'. 

This, together with the violent actions at the temple, depict Jesus as a confrontational personality: very much "in your face", regardless of whoever he is currently interacting with.  

But there is another side: Jesus as Prophet. These prophetic utterances are often prefaced with "Verily, Verily, I say unto you..."

The first is during the meeting with Nathaniel in Chapter One: Verily, verily, I say unto you, Hereafter ye shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man

Jesus here introduces the term "Son of man" for himself*. Again we can see that - even when teaching directly - by modern standards Jesus's speech is what we moderns might term poetic or symbolic (i.e. it means more than it says, and means several things at once). 

The truth of such prophetic statements is occult: i.e. hidden, non-obvious to mundane understanding. Thus; when teaching spiritually, Jesus employs a spiritual - unworldly, unpractical - form of language.   

Then, in Chapter 3, when when Jesus meets Nicodemus, we get a great outpouring of such vatic teachings. 

We get, indeed, the essence of Jesus's work and message distilled in its entirety

And different versions of this core-teaching recur several times throughout this Gospel - sometimes encapsulating in a verse or two; sometimes in an extended parable-teaching, such as "the feeding of the five thousand" or The Good Shepherd. 

The impression of Jesus as a character in the Fourth Gospel is very striking indeed! 

He is volatile, unpredictable, moody; fearless, elusive, direct, kind, harsh, empathic, highly intellectual, simple like a child - each as he discerns that the occasion demands. 

(A word for this personality type in the classical-medieval astrological system is "Mercurial" : as described by CS Lewis in The Discarded Image, and explicated by Michael Ward in The Narnia Code.)

And then Jesus may suddenly - as it were - stand tall and speak from the great prophetic heights of one who is the 'only begotten Son of God".

...Which I take to mean the first and only among all of God's children who fully understands, and is in full accord-with The Creator's divine purposes and will. 

The One who is uniquely capable of offering a path to all men, all those who are (unlike himself) 'sinners - out-of-accord with God and desirers of death... 

Offering all such men a path to everlasting life on the far side of death when they are Born Again; all this by the simple act of 'believing on' Him! That is (approximately) knowing who He is, and following him to Heaven - but after death, by being 'born-again' or resurrected:

[16] For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. [17] For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved. [18] He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.

The "already" of to be "condemned already", means that this is not a threat of punishment - but a rescue from the otherwise inevitable fate of men before the time of Jesus: which was to die and descend, as discarnate "ghosts", to witless and depersonalized mere-existence in Sheol/ Hades/ the underworld. 

(There to await the coming of Jesus, and the coming of choice.)

Hell only emerged after Jesus, because Hell is the choice of those who know, but reject and oppose Jesus's offer and gift of resurrected eternal Heavenly life - which is a very different matter from passively having-imposed the default state of Sheol. 

* Chapter 3: [12] If I have told you earthly things, and ye believe not, how shall ye believe, if I tell you of heavenly things? [13] And no man hath ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven, even the Son of man which is in heaven. [14] And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: [15] That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life. 

Jesus is here saying, in vatic-poetic mode - that he himself is the Son of man who 'ascended up to Heaven' - when baptized by John and becoming fully-divine albeit mortal; having come 'down from heaven' as a man in perfect accord with God the Father; and therefore 'which is in heaven' even as he speaks with Nicodemus (heaven being a place or state of those Beings whose natures are in full and eternal harmony with God's creative will).  

Note added: It is often said that Jesus wants us to become more like him. The implication is that we ought to behave more like Jesus; model our behaviour on that of Jesus. I don't see it, it would anyway be impossible; and I do not believe it is true. Jesus wants us to believe-on and to follow him - but surely not to behave like him, nor have characters like his character. The essence of Christianity is resurrection, which is a wholly-good and eternal restoration of our-self! Heaven is full of unique characters, each contributing something unique hence vital: not populated by Jesus-copies! (Which would, if true, be redundant and render eternal life futile.)  


Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

Some very good points here. However, I am convinced that Jesus is no longer speaking in John 3:13-21, just as John the Baptist is no longer being quoted in vv. 31-36. Both of these passages are the author expressing his own ideas. Of course the *content* presumably came from the teachings of Jesus, but this passage should not be used as an example of Jesus' personal character or distinctive way of expressing himself.

Some of my reasons for this conclusion are given in these two posts:

Bruce Charlton said...

@Wm - I was not convinced then, and I am not now, by your project to distinguish reported speech from authorial speech - nor by attempts to cross tabulate across to the Old Testament to show contradictions. I don't accept that that is how the Gospel is written, don't accept that the author was writing in a way that distinguished what was a quotation, from what is the author's summary/ interpretation. It is more of a seamless garment.

But either way, it does not affect the point I am making about the character of Jesus. My 'interpretation' was added simply because I had drawn attention to this passage; not as a part of discussing Jesus's character.

This passage is, or is not, some particular thing Jesus *said* in the vatic-prophetic mode; but it *is* one of several substantively equivalent restatements in the Fourth Gospel. For me, that is the key point.

William Wright (WW) said...

One thought is that a 'true' picture of Jesus' character is not really revealed in any of these accounts that pre-date his resurrection. God condescended to take on the body of fallen Man, and all that comes with it.

A crude analogy is that it may be as useless to come to a knowledge of Jesus' character and personality while a mortal Man, as it is to determine that of Frodo while he bore the ring.
I suppose that one can get indeed get a sense of their natures in these situations and times of duress, but only if you have the larger context (the before and after) of their story with which to place how they acted in those times.

We do get the interactions of Jesus as a resurrected Man with those at Bountiful in the Book of Mormon, which should in theory give us a better understanding, but even that is filtered by Mormon's summaries of that account, and the ensuing translations, as well as his own acknowledgment that he is only including a much lesser account of Jesus' teaching and work among those people.

That greater record, and a fuller account from John, are to be had at some point. Until then, I am not sure it is possible to speak with full confidence as to Jesus' character and personality.

Bruce Charlton said...

@WW "God condescended to take on the body of fallen Man, and all that comes with it."

I disagree with your characterization of Jesus's nature.

I don't see any problem at all about discussing Jesus's personality at revealed in the last three years of his mortal life to a beloved disciple! No doubt - he was different as a child and adolescent; and he is different now - but it is still of interest to examine what he was like aged c30-33 - when he did so much vital stuff, surely?